Saturday, October 30, 2010

Freedom needs to be defended every day.

“We have freedom” President Bush used to say, echoing the opinion of many Americans. Freedom, they think, is a permanent and solid possession. We have freedom just as we have noses in our faces.

Others have a more complex view. We have freedom, they say, because we have our Constitution.

But the Constitution is a document. The original is written on parchment. Copies are printed on paper or can be read on the Internet. How can a piece of paper make us free men or women?

The answer is, of course: It cannot make us free. Notoriously, the Constitution of the former Soviet Union guaranteed all the liberties guaranteed by our constitution. But that did not make that country any less of a police state. Closer to home, our constitution was in force for almost one hundred years while most African-Americans were enslaved, to be sold in the market like so much cattle. The Constitution did not assure them their freedom.

Instead they and many Americans, not enslaved, needed to fight for it. When, at the end of the Civil War, we added three further amendments to the Constitution assuring everyone—of whatever origins-- equal rights as citizens, African Americans still suffered second class status. In many states they were not allowed to vote. They were kept poor and suffered many indignities.

All that changed because they fought for their liberties for another 100 years.

The lesson is unambiguous: people are free only if they are prepared to defend their liberties. We are free because many people continue to challenge government encroachments on the freedoms of citizens. This morning's paper alone had five stories about Americans fighting to preserve their—and our-- freedoms.

The first case is particularly instructive. In 2000 the citizens in Massachusetts added a provision to their constitution that deprived imprisoned felons of their right to vote. 60% of voters supported the amendment. One third of the voters did not. Is this limitation of liberty legitimate? One third of Massachusetts voters did not think so. But it is now included in the constitution of the state of Massachusetts as well as of most other states. Only in Maine and Vermont are imprisoned felons allowed to vote.. Even constitutions may perpetuate injustices. Constitutions do not always defend liberty.

Several of the cases concerning people defending their liberties concern the suspicion that someone is being railroaded by police and politically powerful persons. A Boston City Councillor is in court accused of taking a bribe. The prosecution witness was paid $ 30,000 by the FBI. Is such a witness reliable?

In another case, four men accused of plotting to blow up a synagogue and shooting down planes, were clearly urged on by a paid informant who convinced them that he was a terrorist. The informant supplied the weapons. Fortunately they were dummies. The conspirators apparently were sufficiently feckless to be unable to tell real from phony weapons. The informant was instrumental in hatching this plot. Were they railroaded? A jury in New York City did not think so, but the question is clearly legitimate.

In a fourth case, a native Kansan, college football player, who later converted to Islam was arrested soon after 9/11 as a possible material witness. So were 70 other persons. They were strip searched and held in shackles for two weeks or more and saw their lives seriously restricted for the next year. Most of them were never called as witnesses. Many of them are now suing the government for illegal imprisonment.

Finally, The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont is in court to find out how the State of Vermont uses cellphones to keep track of citizens. In criminal investigations the state uses cell phones to track people but no one knows how many people are being followed, or whether the state is keeping tabs on innocent citizens.

These cases involve voting rights, protection against railroading by police, protection against illegal imprisonment and government violation of citizens' privacy. These are important issues. These challenges to government actions all occurred on one and the same day.

Our freedoms are not secure. There is a constant to-and-fro between government, as well as private parties, infringing on the liberties of citizens and citizens who are trying to defend their liberties. Sometimes they win; often the government has the upper hand. Whatever the outcome, there are brave citizens who are aware of the threats to our freedoms and are willing to defend them.

We owe them a debt of gratitude. We should be ready, if necessary, to emulate them.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

How scuzzy can you get?

I am quoting below a story from the Grassroots International Insight Newsletter:

“When news of Monsanto donating hybrid seeds to Haiti after the devastating earthquake last January began to spread through the country, Grassroots partner The Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP) began informing Haitian farmers as to what exactly this "gift” entailed.

These "free" seeds turned out to be one-time-use seeds: requiring unsuspecting farmers to buy not only expensive fertilizers and pesticides, but also replacement seeds for the next year and every year after that -- all from Monsanto. An estimated 1000 peasants marched in central Haiti to protest this Trojan horse, complicating Monsanto's effort to convert your Haitian peasants into new customers.

"... Hybrids are a very serious attack on small-scale farming, on farmers, on biodiversity, on creole seeds, and on what is left of our environment," said a peasant leader of the MPP.”

Haitian farmers, like farmers all over the world, hold back some of this year's crop to use as seeds next year. They do not have the money to buy new seeds every year. Nor can they afford chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

But the seeds that Monsanto so "generously" offered to give to Haitian farmers contain a terminator gene -- so-called because the crops raised from Monsanto hybrid seeds cannot be used as seed a second year. A farmer who uses Monsanto seeds has to buy new seeds every year.

In addition Monsanto seeds are designed to be used with artificial fertilizers and pesticides. They will not yield much of a crop for the Haitian farmers who cannot afford to buy fertilizers and pesticides.

Adoption of Monsanto seeds in Haiti would be a major disaster for the farmers. In the midst of the terrible devastation and suffering of the January earthquake, Monsanto invited additional damage to Haitian agriculture -- already suffering seriously-- just to get a few more customers.

How scuzzy can you get?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Rescue in Chile.

President of Chile Sebastian Pineira and the engineers he chose to rescue the trapped miners are justly proud of their accomplishment. But they spent $20 million to save the lives of 33 men. In Chile, a country where almost twenty percent of the population is poor, where young men and women have an unemployment rate of almost 25%, how many lives could have been saved with those same $20million?

The question is not to criticize the decision of Chile's president but to remind us that decisions to spend money or to withhold it may have serious consequences for citizens. It may mean life or death to some.

Consider the sad story of the Cranicks of Obion County, Tennessee. In this rural section of Tennessee, Gene Cranick’s home caught on fire. As the Cranicks fled their home, their neighbors alerted the county’s firefighters, who soon arrived at the scene. Yet when the firefighters arrived, they refused to put out the fire, saying that the family failed to pay the annual subscription fee to the fire department. Because the county’s fire services for rural residences is based on household subscription fees, the firefighters, stood by and watched as the home burned to the ground

Mayor Crocker when asked about the city’s policy, likened the policy to buying auto insurance. He said that, after all, “if an auto owner allowed their vehicle insurance to lapse, they would not expect an insurance company to pay for an unprotected vehicle after it was wrecked.”
The mayor might also have liked this policy to our prevailing policy concerning health insurance. Individuals who do not get health insurance as a benefit at work, need to buy insurance. If they are unable to do so, they cannot see a doctor when sick and cannot procure the medicines prescribed in the Hospital Emergency Room. Thus Mayor Crocker might have said “if people do not buy health insurance, they would not expect their doctors or drug bills to be paid by the insurance company.”

The decisions to spend money or to withhold it made by government agencies, or by taxpayers, have serious effects on the lives of individuals. The Cranicks lost their house because the people of Obion County, Tennessee opted not to pay their fire protection from tax money. The 33 Chilean miners are alive because their country was willing to spend $ 20 million to rescue them. They almost died because the company they work for was unwilling to spend the money needed to make the mine a safe place to work in.

How many people lead impaired lives or die prematurely because we do not provide proper health care for them? An article in the Journal of Public Health reports:

In a new study, researchers estimate that 45,000 deaths per year in the U.S. are associated with not having health insurance. Data came from about 9,000 people aged 17 to 64 who took part in a government health survey between 1988 and 1994. They were followed through 2000. During those years, about 3% of the participants died. People without any health insurance were 40% more likely than people with health insurance to die during the years studied, regardless of factors such as age, gender, race, income, education, health status, BMI (body mass index), exercisesmoking, and alcohol use.” ( healthy-aging/news/20090917/no-health-insurance-higher-death-risk).

As the country once again debates taxes, citizens need to remember the seriousness of that debate. It is not just about ideology, about “small government” or “self-reliance” or about “defending the constitution.” It is not just about you and me having a bit more disposable income when taxes are reduced. It is about the lives of fellow Americans and sometimes it is a question of life and death.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Two Ways of Fighting Poverty

The poor need help! They may need help finding a job, they may need advice, they may need some money to tide them over a hard period. They need encouragement, reassurance that they are able and competent persons even though at the moment things are not going their way.

One in four Americans, in any decade, will fall below the poverty line due to unemployment, illness, divorce. But the vast majority of them will be poor for short periods. If they can get help they can get their life together again.

At the moment our government is unwilling to help. There is a bill before the Senate extending the unemployment benefits to people who have not been able to find work for a long time due to the present economic crisis. But the Senate seems not interested in this bill. Instead, the Senators worry about keeping the Bush tax cuts for the very rich--those who are earning more than $250,000 a year. Helping the poor is not on the agenda of our elected representatives. They are too worried about the people at the other end of the economic spectrum.

It is easy to understand our Senators' disinterest in poverty and homelessness and their eagerness to get on the good side of millionaires. Getting elected and re-elected to the Senate is VERY expensive. The poor do not contribute to senatorial campaigns; the rich do.

These are familiar facts to which people react differently. Some people say “ I do not participate in politics because all politicians are crooks.” But that makes no sense. If someone sells you a car that turns out to be a lemon, do you say:” All car dealers are crooks” and go out and buy another automobile? No, you go and make a stink and try to get your money back. Why should you not make a stink about Senators that take no interest in their constituents who have no money?

A second response is to say that poor people should vote in large numbers—which they don't.

I think that that is true but it is not enough! In politics as in many other situations it is the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. If poor people want to get attention from their government, they need to make a lot of noise.

What sort of noise? Here are some ideas: A campaign of letters to the newspapers saying your Senator cares only for the rich. Get on the local public access television talk shows and talk about the Senator's unwillingness to help people who can't find work. Wherever the Senator goes he is dogged by people with signs about how he only cares for millionaires.

Obviously this will not work if one or two people do it by themselves. They'll just make a nuisance of themselves. But that sort of noise is important if everyone knows that there is an organization behind it. If the people with signs are representatives of a larger movement they will get attention because they represent a significant number of votes.

The second form of fighting poverty is to build organizations of the poor, the homeless, the unemployed. In the previous major depression, in the 1930s, in cities like New York, Chicago, and Detroit, the Unemployed Councils made an immediate impact, staging large attention-getting demonstrations in the winter and spring of 1930 and in subsequent years building neighborhood based Councils that fought for public assistance and rallied neighbors to conduct rent strikes and resist evictions.” ( black.shtml) The government heard them and initiated the New Deal. That was not a perfect program but it paid more attention to the poor, the homeless, the unemployed than our government does today.

Friday, October 15, 2010

What is Illegal in Civilian Life is Legal in the Military

In an earlier blog I wrote about the story a young woman told of her brother who returned from Iraq taciturn and withdrawn. Soon he returned to the wars, but this time in Afghanistan,

His sister asked him about the goal of that war. His reply was:” I am a Marine. I have been trained to take orders without question. I do what I am told, when I am told. I think about the job I have to do, not about its purpose.”

She was appalled by his passivity, his dependence and his total lack of citizenship.

But she added that the Marines had saved his brother's life. In his teens he had been into drugs and had had run-ins with the police. Given a choice between enlisting or going to prison, he chose the military. She was sure that he made the right choice. Had he not joined up, she thinks, he would by now be doing hard time.

But our armies in the Mid-East are not drug free. A recent government report states: “As we continue to wage war on several fronts, data would suggest that [our soldiers] are becoming more dependent on pharmaceuticals to sustain themselves. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that the force is becoming increasingly dependent on both legal and illegals drugs.” If such drug use is officially illegal, there have been no reports of prosecutions for drug use in the theaters of war. Drug use is, in fact, an accepted part of military life.

Out troops kill soldiers and civilians, women and children, destroy houses and fields. In wars, such destruction is not only legal, but if a soldier dies while killing and destroying, we call him a hero. If our Marine had remained a civilian, he would have ended in jail for doing what now it is his job to do.

We erect very different standards of behavior for civilians and for soldiers. Actions declared illegal and heavily punished when done by civilians, are taken to be facts of life of the soldier's job in the military. A soldier is a hero when he does what, in civilian life, would end him in prison.

That is an unpleasant truth that all of us need to take seriously. Soldiers do the fighting and face the dangers and the pain of war. But we vote for those war and we pay for them. It is not only their war, but ours only.

We support this startling double standards between military and civilian existence.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Cost of War

It does not look as if we were winning the war in Afghanistan. It does not look as if we'd won in Iraq either. The outcomes of both wars remain uncertain.

But one thing is certain: the cost is indefensible.

The dollar cost of both wars now exceeds $1 trillion.

In Iraq we lost 4500 soldiers.

Of the private contractors working in Iraq to support US military personnel, 1327 were killed. 145  journalists died.

Estimates of civilian Iraqi casualties are somewhere between 100,000 and 600,000.

Military deaths in Afghanistan stand around 2000. The Washington Post reports "Since 2000, 180,000 traumatic brain injuries have been diagnosed [In Iraq and Afghanistan], and some patient advocates say hundreds, if not thousands, more have suffered undiagnosed brain injuries. A Rand study in 2008 estimated the total number of service members with TBI [traumatic brain injury] to be about 320,000.” For every one of these soldiers with serious lifelong damage there is a family whose life is similarly shattered. There are children who grow up with a father who has difficulties functioning.

In the meantime, the rate of military suicides keeps rising. In Afghanistan alone there were more than 300 suicides by soldiers in a recent year. How many soldiers return, deeply unhappy and thinking about suicide? The divorce rate in the military is also rising. All of these numbers give us hints about the incredible toll on human lives inflicted by these wars, not only by causing death and major injury but by leaving soldiers unable take up civilian life and function well, to take up life with their families, to overcome the trauma of warfare.

One chilling illustration comes from a story in a local college publication. The young author describes how her brother returned from fighting in Iraq as a Marine. The whole family met him at the airport, all excited to have him come back alive and apparently unhurt. But he is distant and uncommunicative. Within a short period he reenlists to go to Afghanistan.

His sister asks him why we are fighting these two wars. He does not know. He is a well-trained Marine. All he does is take orders and do what he is told. He does not ask questions. He does not wonder why he gets his orders. All he cares for is to advance in rank and earn more money.

We can get see the terrible trouble we are in if that is who survives our wars. The soldiers who survived the cold winter at Valley Forge under George Washington knew what they were fighting for. They were citizens.

But this ex-Marine will never be a citizen. His withdrawal from our republic shows us just one more ways in which our young men and women are damaged irreparably by this war.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

When will they ever learn?

In the 1980s while the Soviet Union was occupying Afghanistan, the United States government helped to create Al Qaeda. They financed Osama bin Laden and his mujaheddin in their fight against the Russian occupation. Not much later we invaded Afghanistan to capture bin Laden. We are still involved in this war which, at the moment, is not going well.

In retrospect financing bin Laden turned out to be a terrible mistake for which we will pay for a long time.

In the same Cold War period, Somalia was first a client of the USSR. They had a guided missile base there. The Russians supported Somalia. The United States supported neighboring Ethiopia. Then left-leaning generals took over the government in Ethiopia and we and Russia played musical chairs. Russia sponsored the left-leaning generals in Ethiopia and Somalia now became a client of United States.

Enormous quantities of weapons flowed into the region. In the 1990s the government in Somalia collapsed. The United States rescue effort ended in a shameful defeat for us. Today Somalia has no functioning government. But its coastline harbors pirates who are taking in millions of dollars every year in ransom for big ships they managed to take over. The Pirates are armed with weapons we supplied in the years of Cold War rivalry.

There are other examples of this knee-jerk policy of arming the enemies of our enemies. Again and again this policy has backfired dramatically. But our Department of State has not learned its lessons.

They are about to do it again. The Obama administration is considering selling $60 billion worth of advanced aircraft in Saudi Arabia -- a country mired in medieval customs and government. Run by a king and his family, Saudi Arabia is ultraconservative and oppressive to its population, especially to women. It is not a suitable political partner for a country that presents itself to the world as a champion of free institutions.

But following the disastrous principle that the enemies of our enemies are our friends we will sell cutting-edge military supplies to the Saudi kingdom because they are enemies of Iran.

How long before we will bitterly regret this action?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

What are they thinking?

“Secretary of State Clinton announced yesterday that for the first time ever, the United States is imposing sanctions against Iran-based individuals for human rights abuses. She said that President Obama signed an executive order on Sept. 28 that sanctions eight Iranian officials who have been involved in "serious and sustained" human rights violations since June 2009's disputed presidential election. Under these officials' watch, Iranians have been "arbitrarily arrested, beaten, tortured, raped, blackmailed, and killed," Clinton said.”

This news item appeared in yesterday's newspaper; you can also find it on the Internet.

I find this news completely astonishing. If your house is dirty are you going to criticize your neighbors’ house keeping? Surely not. Is our conscience is clear that we do not commit human rights abuses and do not support  governments that do? If not, it makes no sense for us to criticize the human rights abuses of other countries.

According to our Constitution everyone has a right to a speedy trial, to being promptly arraigned, and to be tried by a jury of their peers. But prisoners in Guantanamo Bay have been held for many years without being accused of any definite crime. Some of them have been tortured in secret CIA prisons.

We support governments that commit human rights abuses every day. As I mentioned in a recent blog,  our government has decided to sell $60 billion worth of advanced air craft to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia does not recognize religious freedom. Women's lives are carefully circumscribed; only 5% of the workforce are women. Women are not allowed to drive automobiles. Some women are allowed to pilot planes but they must be driven to the airport by a man.

Is that the sort of country that champions of human rights should support?

Our record on human rights is, unfortunately, not spotless. (Readers who know their history may remember Sacco and Vanzetti and the Rosenbergs) We are not in a position to punish other governments for their human rights violations.

Young American men and women are fighting and dying in Afghanistan trying to "win the hearts and minds" of the Afghani population away from the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Does our government really think that they are helping this effort by being grossly hypocritical about human rights in our country as well as abroad?

The condemnation of Iranian politicians and ministers may have been deserved but the people who decided to make a public spectacle of that -- the Secretary of State and the President --  have stopped thinking about America's role in the world. Otherwise they would have realized that they were making a laughing stock of America.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

 Islamophobia --Fearing Muslims

The recent manifestations of fear and detestation of Muslims in the United States come at the end of a long history of European rejections of Islam. Think of the Crusades, and the expulsion of Arabs from Spain in the year that Columbus first came to the new world.

But the people who supported an unknown Florida pastor in his abortive plan to burn copies of the Koran on 9/11,  or the people who demonstrate passionately against the plan for an Islamic center near Ground Zero are motivated by more contemporary preoccupations.

Fear was a dominant emotion at the Manhattan demonstrations and may well be behind the project to burn the Koran or actual burnings of mosques in different parts of the country. The opponents of the Muslim community center were protesting what they called "the Islamization" of America. They are afraid, they said, that our legal system will be replaced by Islamic religious law, sharia.

We should notice two aspects of these outbursts of anti-Muslim feelings. In the first place, the fears are wildly exaggerated. America is not about to be "islamicized." Sharia law is not about to take over.

The second important point is that politicians on the right have, in the last year, made it their business to frighten voters. Remember the talk about "death panels." Remember all the talk that health care reform will take away peoples’ health insurance. Think of all the talk about Pres. Obama being a Muslim. Think of the talk about how we are on the point of losing all our freedoms, or how our Constitution is in imminent danger.

Or look at the uproar about the Islamic Center in Manhattan. At the present time, an Imam who likes big ideas is talking about building this tall edifice devoted to Islamic culture. Three people, one of them a native of Egypt, own three buildings. But the Egyptian native has said publicly that he will sell his building to the highest bidder. He is not firmly committed to the Islamic Center project. There is no fund-raising to pay for this building. So far there are no plans. The whole thing is just an idea.

Fear stalks the land and politicians are fomenting it.

But it is pretty easy to scare people these days. Some people are really afraid of Islam taking over. We need to ask ourselves why so many people are so fearful.

Unfortunately there are too many legitimate reasons for being fearful. Unemployment remains at 10%; people with jobs are afraid of losing them. Another 10% are underemployed. Winter is coming and many people do not know how they will pay for the heat, their rent and their food. Congress is unable and/or unwilling to help anyone except the largest banks and manufacturers.

But there are other reasons. We just passed the ninth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11 but are still awaiting  a national discussion of what happened there. The immediate reaction was that we were innocent victims of "terrorists" and that usually means murderous thugs, mindless killers or religious fanatics. No one in government ever made any effort to provide an explanation for 9/11. No one has asked what these attacks had to do with the role the United States plays in the world -- especially in the world of Arabs and of Muslims.

In order to avoid asking these questions and to avoid the answers which may well be uncomfortable we talk about "terrorism." Terrorists are thought to be completely unreasonable, murderous people. It is useless to ask why they do what they do because they are utterly irrational.

Terrorist attacks have no rational explanation. If 9/11 was an attack by irrational people, we need not examine our role in the world and ask ourselves whether we are, to any extent, responsible for what happened that day.

But the thought that the world is full of crazy people who control really destructive weapons is indeed very frightening. If the terrorists are really completely unreasonable, their behavior is unpredictable, and short of killing them, there is no way of resolving the problem.

The United States is confronted by a dilemma. We can think seriously of why we are under attack and, perhaps, reconsider the  stance we assume in the world. But that may well compel us to give up our splendid self conception of being the leaders of the free world, and we are not willing to do that. The alternative is to think that our opponents, the people who threaten us, are wildly irrational, unpredictable, religious fanatics. But that is a frightening thought because there is no talking to them. Such people are completely unpredictable.

So many people are very fearful because we have chosen to frighten ourselves with the bogeyman of the terrorists because we refuse to think about who we are, how we present ourselves to the world, and whether, perhaps, we need to change our image and our conduct in relation to other countries.